The Cable

Ban to Iran: Free the Journalists, Political Prisoners

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has directly appealed to Iran to release the Washington Post‘s Iranian-American reporter, Jason Rezaian, and his journalist wife, Yeganeh Salehi, Ban told Foreign Policy in an interview on Friday. Ban said that he brought up the case of the two detained journalists in a closed-door meeting Thursday on the sidelines of ...

STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has directly appealed to Iran to release the Washington Post‘s Iranian-American reporter, Jason Rezaian, and his journalist wife, Yeganeh Salehi, Ban told Foreign Policy in an interview on Friday.

Ban said that he brought up the case of the two detained journalists in a closed-door meeting Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Ban urged Zarif not only to release the two reporters, but also to free other political prisoners in Iranian jails.

"Why don’t you release them?" he recalled asking the Iranian diplomat, during an interview in his 38th-floor office atop the U.N. headquarters building. "I raised this issue of the two persons who are still in prison and expressed my serious concern about human rights issues, particularly those people, and urged their government to release all remaining political prisoners."

In a wide-ranging interview, Ban said he also pressed Iran’s foreign minister to be "constructive" in confronting Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq and to show "flexibility" and "compromise" in ongoing nuclear talks with the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, and Germany. Those negotiations are supposed to conclude by late November, though the United States and its European allies are seeking further assurances from Iran that its nuclear energy program cannot be used to fuel a nuclear weapon.

Ban was relieved that Scottish voters chose to remain part of Great Britain in a referendum Thursday, saying the world needs a strong United Kingdom to confront a series of global crises. He was pleased, however, that Scots approved a separate initiative allowing women to join one of Scotland’s oldest golf clubs.

"I respect the will of the Scottish people," he said. But speaking as the U.N. secretary-general, he said, "We need a strong and consistent engagement and leadership [from] the United Kingdom when we are in the middle of multiple, multiple crises."

Iranian authorities detained Rezaian and Salehi, along with two others who have since been released, on July 22. It remains unclear what crime, if any, the two journalists are charged with. Ban declined to describe the Iranian diplomats’ response to his plea.

But Zarif told National Public Radio on Wednesday that he personally knows Rezaian to be "a fair reporter" and that he is trying to make Rezaian’s imprisonment "shorter than longer," adding: "I hope that all detainees will be released."

Still, Zarif said Rezaian’s fate is in the hands of the Iranian judiciary and that he "is facing interrogation in Iran for what he has done as an Iranian citizen. The judiciary has no obligation to explain to the United States why it is detaining one of its citizens. His lawyers know. He knows his charge."

But Rezaian’s employer said they have been left in the dark. "It’s long past time for the Iranian authorities to release Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post and his wife Yeganeh Salehi," Douglas Jehl, the Washington Post‘s foreign editor, said by email. "The two have been held for more than eight weeks without explanation or charges. They have not been permitted to meet with their lawyer. The two are fully accredited journalists, and we remain mystified by their detention and deeply concerned about their welfare."

Press watchdogs said that initial hopes that last year’s election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would usher in a period of greater tolerance for journalists have been dashed. Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, which tracks press detentions, said that about 40 journalist were in jail in Iran when Rouhani came to power. Roughly the same number remain in jail today, he said.

"One of President Rouhani’s campaign promises was to improve the climate for journalists in Iran, but he has utterly failed to deliver," Simon said. "Iran remains one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists."

Ban said he urged Zarif to capitalize on "all this good will, and excitement and expectation" that followed President Rouhani’s visit to the U.N. General Assembly last year. The trip marked a turning point in the United States’ relationship with Iran, culminating with a phone call from President Obama to his Iranian counterpart as he wrapped up his first visit to the United Nations as Iran’s leader. It was the first time an American president had spoken directly to an Iranian leader since 1979, although American and Iranian presidents had previously exchanged letters. It set the stage for the resumption of big-power talks over the fate of Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran claims is being used to generate electricity, but which the United States and its allies believe aims to develop the capacity to build a nuclear bomb.

Ban said he "appreciated" that Iran has been engaging in "serious negotiations" with the U.N.’s big powers and "faithfully" working to resolve unanswered questions about its nuclear program with the International Atomic Energy Agency. "At the same time, they should do more with a sense of flexibility and compromise," he said. "I told him they should exercise maximum flexibility."

Ban said he had also urged Iran to be "constructive" in trying to resolve a number of regional conflicts, including the international effort to confront the extremist Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL. The group, which has beheaded four U.S. and British nationals, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, has seized control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

Ban said there is "an increasing consensus in the international community [about the need to] counter this terrorist barbarity called ISIL." He urged countries with "the means and capacity and political will" to confront terrorists, even through the use of military action.

While Ban has supported the use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq, he has been reluctant to say whether U.S.-led military strikes against the group in Syria would be considered legal. In the event that military force is used against the Islamic State, he said, "It’s important that international humanitarian laws, human rights should be kept in mind" and that steps should be taken to avoid "any civilian casualties."

The U.N. Charter allows states to use military force in their own self-defense or that of their allies, or when the U.N. Security Council authorizes countries to intervene militarily on the soil of another state. The Security Council has not authorized airstrikes against the Islamic State and Syria has not extended the U.S.-led coalition an invitation to attack the extremists on its territory.

"There may be some legal issue," he said.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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